Bold in shoring up democracy abroad, Biden is more measured responding to domestic unrest




  • In Politics
  • 2022-06-30 16:03:37Z
  • By LA Times
President Biden speaks during a news conference on the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
President Biden speaks during a news conference on the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)  

President Biden's five days of meetings in Europe and the bold actions undertaken by the U.S. and its G-7 and NATO allies reflect an abrupt sea change in the West's approach to its own defense in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The conclusion of a historic summit here saw members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ratify a new strategic concept that will maintain a stronger military presence in Eastern Europe and the formal invitation of Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.

That came on the heels of a G-7 summit in the Bavarian Alps where leaders committed billions more to Ukraine's defense and agreed to work toward imposing price caps on Russian oil to further stymie the country's ability to fund its war.

"This summit was about strengthening our alliance, meeting the challenges of the world as it is today," Biden said Thursday during a news conference, adding that "the world is changing. And NATO is changing as well. Allies across the board are stepping up, increasing defense spending."

"The United States," he added, "is rallying the world to stand with Ukraine."

But the president, resolute in defense of global democracy, has been slower to respond to changes tearing at the democratic fabric of his own country. His summit meetings were overshadowed by the Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe vs. Wade and a blockbuster congressional hearing at which a former aide to President Trump testified about how his unhinged behavior on Jan. 6, 2021, contributed to the violent insurrection at the Capitol.

Biden's conviction in Bavaria and Madrid is not likely to improve his low standing with voters fixated on pocketbook issues. But it did offer a sharp contrast with his hesitation in seeking to shore up democratic institutions in the United States.

"We talk about democracy being in crisis in other countries. Democracy is in crisis in the United States, and it doesn't always feel like this White House understands that," said Amanda Litman, the founder of Run for Something, a progressive organization that helps young people run for elected office.

At Biden's NATO news conference, his final event before returning to Washington, the questions he received focused as much on domestic issues as the foreign policy moves he and allies made this week. Asked about a poll showing 85% of Americans believing that the country is on the "wrong track," he was defiant, attributing their frustrations over inflation to Russia's war in Ukraine and the Supreme Court.

"America is better positioned to lead the world than it ever has been," he said. "The one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court."

Again urging Americans to channel their frustrations into voting in November's midterm elections, Biden renewed his call for Congress to codify federal abortion protections into federal law, saying for the first time that he supports an exception to the Senate's 60-votes filibuster rule so that legislation can advance with just 50 votes to preserve women's reproductive rights.

"If the filibuster gets in the way, like on voting rights, it should be provided an exception for this action," he said.

That position could help soften some of the rising frustration toward Biden on the left in the wake of the court's Roe decision. But Democrats don't appear to have the 50 votes needed to actually change the filibuster requirement and pass federal abortion protections.

Although he forcefully denounced the ruling as a "tragic error," his administration has been clearer spelling out what the president won't do, ruling out a proposal to situate abortion clinics on federal land and the possibility of adding justices to a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, three of whom were appointed by his predecessor.

Many prominent Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have expressed disappointment that Biden hasn't seemed to share their outrage or sense of urgency in helping women in peril. Asked Thursday whether he would call a public health emergency as Warren and others have called for, Biden demurred, saying only that he plans to meet Friday at the White House with a group of governors to discuss actions at the state level.

When a reporter questioned whether he was the best messenger to lead his party's response following the Roe ruling, Biden offered a somewhat glib response. "I'm the president of the United States of America," he said with a grin. "That makes me the best messenger."

By comparison, Biden's commitment to defending Ukraine "as long as it takes" was articulated more forcefully, even as he acknowledged the effects on American consumers and the global economy. Asked how long Americans should tolerate paying more for gas as a result of the war in Ukraine, he was blunt, repeating himself: "As long as it takes so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine," he said. "This is a critical, critical position for the world."

Republicans, a few of whom attended the summit and met with Biden before he left Madrid, have largely supported the president's response to Ukraine. Nevertheless, many have also blamed him for rising gas prices and the inflation that's been exacerbated by the war.

"There's more of a bipartisan spirit when it comes to NATO than any of Biden's domestic challenges," said Ash Jain, an expert on democracies at the Atlantic Council.

The juxtaposition between how Biden carries himself abroad alongside like-minded allies and at home is evidence that the president faces more constraints and political challenges within the American political system.

"It's just a much harder environment to operate in and the solutions are much more complicated," Jain said.

Despite the seriousness of the commitments outlined this week by G-7 and NATO allies, Biden's political weakness at home - and that of other G-7 leaders, who've seen their own support and governing coalitions wobble in recent weeks - could work to Russian President Vladimir Putin's benefit over time, as the autocrat seeks to outlast the West on the battlefield.

NATO allies continue to express concern about America's political instability. They worry about making commitments to Biden that might be cast aside should he lose reelection in 2024.

"The other leaders want to know what is he is going to do about a Supreme Court stripping away people's rights, about these efforts by Trump and others to attack American institutions," said Brett Bruen, a former National Security Council official in the Obama administration. "He has not had a great plan, and if he doesn't, the domestic quagmire can become a major drag on what he's able to accomplish internationally."

Presidents have more latitude to act in foreign affairs than on domestic matters, where they are more constrained by Congress and the courts. But Biden's reluctance to consider structural changes to the Constitution has been a source of frustration among the base of his party long before the Supreme Court's Roe decision.

"Even if there are some very real structural barriers in place, we need to see the White House and the president feel the same rage and fury and frustration that we do," said Litman, the progressive organizer. "We need to see that he sees the crisis and is unafraid to do whatever it takes within his power because he's asking us to sacrifice and organize."

With Democrats narrowly controlling the evenly divided Senate thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris' ability to break a tie vote, Biden nevertheless has seen much of his legislative agenda derailed.

Until Thursday, he had been reluctant to call on Democratic leaders to change the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to advance legislation - after briefly doing so in a failed effort to pass voting rights protections - to codify the right to an abortion in federal law.

The gusher of new revelations about President Trump's role in fomenting the mob that attacked police officers and stormed the Capitol in a brazen attempt to halt the Senate's certification of Biden's electoral victory only adds to the pressure on the administration. Pressure on the Justice Department to prosecute the former president - and Biden's potential 2024 challenger - has grown in recent weeks.

Biden's trepidation about such actions, aides confirm privately, mostly have to do with a sense that they would be perceived as political opportunism and exacerbate the country's already extreme polarization. But with an approval rating of just 39%, Biden and Democrats are facing a potentially disastrous midterm election - especially if frustrated progressive voters opt not to turn out.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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